Three of our team walked into the gathering of about a hundred Kurdish peace and justice activists at the Cultural Café, in Suleimani, Iraqi Kurdistan, to celebrate the International Day of Peace. Immediately, Nyan Mohammad, a teacher at the Arbat School, waved for us to come to sit at her table. There, four displaced Ezidis (often called Yazidis) we had met before stood up and warmly greeted us. Nyan, who is Muslim, made a special trip to the tent camp for displaced persons this afternoon to pick up this group and bring them to this event, which focused on building peace among religious groups.
They remembered when we visited them while they camped on the floors at the school in the nearby town of Arbat. Nyan was there volunteering her time, during the summer vacation, to help care for them at the school. Weeks later, when they were moved to the Arbat Displacement Camp, we met them again and sat with them in front of their tent. I remember their sharing about extended family members who had been taken by ISIS fighters as they tried to escape the city of Shingal (Sinjar) in early August. Tonight they were the only persons present who had been recently terrorized and displaced because of their religious and ethnic background.
Also next to me, was Parween Aziz, a partner of our team, who had been working to advocate for the needs of those displaced by violence. She had just traveled with a group of human rights workers to discuss with Ezidi leaders the need for providing shelters and support systems for their captured women and girls when they are released.
Hosting this event was a Kurdish women’s organization, called the Ashti Group. The speakers included persons from four religious groups among Iraqi Kurds— An Ezidi, a member of the Kaka’i, (Kurdish minority religion), a Muslim, and a Christian. They each urged us not to judge people from other religions, but to live together in tolerance and harmony. This was not a theoretical message, but one speaking to a real need of a society racked with ethnic violence.
Most interesting to me, though, were things that the Ezidi speaker said. First he clarified that they call themselves “Ezidi” which implies that they believe in God, rather than the name, “Yazidi,” a derogatory name that implies that they are non-believers or believe in the devil. Then he spoke about the Ezidi women and girls who have been captured by ISIS. Since it is a custom in the Ezidi religion (as well as Islam) to see a sexual assault as an act that shames and dishonors the family, it can be seen as the duty of a male member of the family to kill the woman, to remove the shame (called “honor killing”). According to the speaker, however, Ezidi leaders have just made a statement that the women and girls did not choose to be sexually assaulted, so they should not be killed. He said that several of them have escaped and have been welcomed when they returned home.
Then there was a time for participants to offer questions and statements. Several expressed frustration about religions fighting wars in the name of their God, and decrying the violence perpetrated by religious groups against women. One person asked, “Why is it that it is mostly women who speak out and work for peace?”
Then Nyan, stood up and went to the microphone. She spoke boldly, but warmly, saying, “We were glad when people cared about the Ezidi, Muslim, and Shabak families camping at our school, and came to learn about what they had gone through and about their current living conditions. I am thankful to say that our table demonstrates what we have all been talking about—what we are striving for tonight. We are Muslim, Ezidi, and Christian, sitting together in peace!”
Once more I knew why I had returned to Iraqi Kurdistan this summer. As we gave farewell greetings with the people at our table, I was amazed and touched by the love I had received from people who had just experienced horror and loss. They are among the hundreds of thousands of families in Iraq and Syria uprooted from all that gave them identity and stability. Their captured relatives have still not been released. I was also moved by the love and care of people from all faiths, giving what they could to help ease their way.
It was one of those moments that made the suffering of so many people, caused by my country’s thirst for oil and for global power and the violent responses it perpetuates, very real. There seems to be no good ending to the tragedy and the pain these beautiful and gentle people endure, but they are walking ahead with resilience and grace.
by Peggy Gish, 22 September 2014